ST. JOSEPH — A year ago, Jeremy Cuellar told a Berrien County Trial Court judge that he shot and killed U.S. Army Sgt. Tyrone Hassel III, and intended to kill him.
Now, Cuellar, 26, wants to withdraw his guilty plea.
Last July, shortly before he would have gone on trial on a first-degree murder charge in Hassel’s death and other, lesser charges, Cuellar pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. Judge Angela Pasula accepted the plea.
But on Thursday, in a motion hearing conducted by Zoom, his appellate lawyer said Cuellar’s trial attorney provided ineffective counsel. John Zevalka said Cuellar alleges, in a signed affidavit, that his trial attorney Edwin Johnson coerced him into pleading guilty, failed to advise him of a trial strategy, and told him a jury would hate him and he would have no chance at trial.
“I believe the court should deny the motion, but I would prefer that we first have an evidentiary hearing with Mr. Johnson coming in to testify, because that will provide a better record of the case down the road,” Berrien Chief Assistant Prosecutor Steve Pierangeli told the judge. Pierangeli prosecuted the case along with Assistant Prosecutor Trevor Maveal.
An agreement reached between prosecutors and Cuellar’s trial lawyer called for a mandatory minimum sentence of 65 years in prison. Cuellar, of Hinesville, Ga., was 25 when sentenced, so would be 90 years old if released after 65 years. Had he been convicted of first-degree murder, the sentence would have been mandatory life without parole.
Hassel’s wife, Kemia Hassel, 22 at the time, had been found guilty by a jury earlier following a four-day trial on charges of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit first-degree murder. She was handed the mandatory life sentence.
Kemia Hassel and Cuellar, while deployed to South Korea serving in the U.S. Army, planned the death of Tyrone Hassel III after becoming lovers. During Kemia Hassel’s trial, testimony included a recorded phone call from jail to Kemia Hassel’s mother, in which she tells her mother that she and Cuellar planned the killing of Tyrone, partly for money. She said they planned for it to happen while all three were on leave for the holidays.
The night of Dec. 31, 2018, Tyrone Hassel III was gunned down outside his father’s house in St. Joseph Township, where he and his wife, along with their baby, were staying for the holidays. According to testimony, the killing happened shortly after Tyrone, who was attending a nearby gathering, notified Kemia that he was about to bring her a plate of food.
In entering his guilty plea last July, Cuellar told the court that he went to their home, waited outside, and shot Hassel “three, four or five times” in the head in the driveway of his father’s home. He said he was standing about 4 feet away from him, and that he intended to kill him.
Pasula set an evidentiary hearing on Cuellar’s motion for 9 a.m. Aug. 26.